The Plot: FirstAct. Hamlet’s father, the King of Denmark dead,but his mother, Queen Gertrude, has married her brother-in-law, Claudius, who has now become king. A Ghost, that looks like the late king of Denmark, has appeared in the sentries at the castle of Elsinore, which is armed in case of attack from Fortinbras, prince of Norway. Hamlet and Horatio met the ghost. He tells Hamlet he has been murdered by Claudius who poured poison in his ear while he was sleeping in his orchard. He asks Hamlet io avenge him, but to leave his mother’s punishment to heaven.

SecondAct. Hamlet pretends that he is mad so that he can carry out his plans more easily. Polonius, the King’s counsellor, thinks Hamlet’s madness is caused by his love for his daughter Ophelia. Hamlet arranges for a troupe of actors, who have come to provide entertainment for the court, to perform The Murder of Gonzago, a play whose story is similar to the one revealed by the ghost.

ThirdAct. The play is presented: the King goes away. While going to his mother’s bedroom Hamlet sees the King at prayer, but doesn’t kill him because he is in a state of grace. During an argument with his mother, Hamlet kills Polonius who is hiding behind a curtain listening to their conversation. The King decides to send Hamlet to England to get rid of him.

FourthAct. Hamlet is sent to England to be killed. Ophelia goes mad and drowns herself. Her brother Laertes wants revenge and the King, after receiving the news that Hamlet has escaped, plots his death in a duel with Laertes.

FifthAct. The duel follows. Hamlet is urged to drink a poisoned drink but does not. The queen drinks the poison, Laertes wounds Hamlet with the poisoned tip of his sword, then the swords are exchanged and Hamlet wounds Laertes. The King is stabbed by Hamlet. Both the King and Laertes and the queen die. Hamlet asks Horatio to tell his story, recommending that Fortinbras be elected King and then he dies. Fortinbras became king after having given military honours to Hamlet.

Hamlet could be read merely as a revenge tragedy. However Shakespeare develops a series of themes that are central to humanity: the relationships between father and son, mother and son, and Hamlet and his friends; love relationships; madness; youth and age; action and inaction; the corruption linked to power; the existence of God, the meaning of the theatre itself. Hamlet is a play about life and death and about man’s ambiguous relation to them both. It is also about melancholy and doubt. It is through Hamlet’s struggle to act, that the concept of “man’s complex nature” is illustrated.

The shock Hamlet receives on the death of his father, and on the remarriage of his mother, causes anxious questions about the peace of the soul. The world changes its colour, life its meaning, love is deprived of its spirituality, woman of her prestige, the state of its stability, the earth and the air of their appeal. It is a reduction of the world to the absurd, of peace to bitterness, of reason to madness. Hamlet sees a contagious disease which spreads from man to the universe.

A major question for man is the relation between “appearance” and “reality”: how does one separate what appears to be real or absolute from what actually is so? Truth seems to reside in the ‘existential idea’: all that individual man knows is that he exists. The essence of truth is thus divorced from substance and from the means through which substance appears.

Another important theme is “honour” and honourable action. The theme of honour makes clear that any action to correct a wrong should be reasoned, not emotional. Justice is accomplished through the various deaths and the ascent of Fortinbras to the throne. Even Hamlet’s death is ennobled by his final honourable actions tending to destroy the sources of corruption within the state.

The most striking characteristic of Hamlet’s language is its ambiguity. Everything is conveyed through metaphor, simile and, above all, wordplay. His words have a hidden meaning which often surpasses the apparent meaning. They have, therefore, enormous affinities with the language of the unconscious. Hamlet is himself aware of the ambiguous nature of his own speeches as well as of the feelings which drive them.

In the third act there is a play-within-the-play which. It is a most interesting expedient because it turns the actors into audience: there is a real audience, then there is an audience on the stage composed of the actors of the play, who see a play, The murder of Gonzago, dealing with the background to the tragedy.

Hamlet deals with the crisis of the human conscience, but also with loss of faith in the effectiveness of man’s action. This is a theatre of the mind embodied by Hamlet’s being prisoner of his existential doubts.